It’s appropriate this Thanksgiving that I share the following story from Carol Henn, soon-to-be-retiring Executive Director of the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation. Reflecting on a successful career in community philanthropy, Carol recently shared her experience about visiting Central Europe in 2000 where she met with government and community leaders to assist them in establishing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and public-private partnerships. The trip was sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency and the Foundation for a Civil Society.
Among her reminiscences, Carol described:
“… guards with rifles at border crossings, gruffly demanding to see our passports and papers, then taking those documents away and causing me to wonder if I would ever see those records again. ‘Toto … we’re not in Kansas anymore.’
“… business and civic leaders at a luncheon, telling me that it was unheard of to offer time, work, or financial assistance for community or non-profit projects. They wanted me to assure them that this would become acceptable over time and that they would not be punished for it. The concept of a Chamber of Commerce astonished them.
“… leading late night planning sessions for community activists in a grim industrial area known as Petrazhalka. Participants meet in secret because of the stranglehold that crime syndicates and former Communist ‘enforcers’ have on the thousands of poor, blue collar workers in the area. The doors to our meeting room burst open and a big, brawny man with an ill-fitting wool jacket walks slowly down the row of seats, making sure that we see his shoulder holster and revolver. The room is numb and silent. No one dares speak. Most heads are lowered, some women are whimpering. If he won this confrontation, my work would be in vain and the group might never attempt to meet again. My anger is overwhelming. I walk over to the man. My translator is too afraid to follow me. Eventually she stands behind me and relays my words:
‘If you have come to participate and help us to make this a better community, you can stay. If you have come to frighten or intimidate us, you might as well leave because I am not afraid of you or your gun. We are not afraid of you. Your days of power and brutality are over. You can stay and understand that this is a new day or you can leave.’”
“He stayed. A few brave souls responded to my questions and continued with the planning we were outlining on flip charts. Within a year, the presence of a strong community council and its committees dramatically reduces crime and drug trafficking, improves the look of the concrete apartment buildings, establishes youth centers, and plants community gardens. ‘We are not afraid anymore,’ they write to me. I never told them that I shook with fear that night all the way back to Bratislava.”
We truly have a lot to be thankful for in our country, including the courage and conviction of people like Carol Henn and the many freedoms we enjoy to improve our local and global community.